It’s not only the fact that these books have young boys as protagonists that makes them so appealing to little fellas. These four authors just tell a really good story, and with main characters who are as likeable as they are imperfect. But as I thought about why I enjoyed these so much, it occurred to me that strong main characters weren’t the whole reason.
Here is the first thing all four have in common: each one tells a story of a boy with a complicated relationship with disappointing or difficult grown-ups. Furthermore, each one of the characters has a father who is either absent, alcoholic, withdrawn, or who just doesn’t understand (or doesn’t try). Their other parent-figures are alternatively helpful, oblivious, compassionate, needy and well-meaning and loving. Just like real grown-ups in real life.
At the conclusion of each story, there is hope. Not some cheap resolution, but measurable improvement, and if not redemption, there is neither blame nor despair, either: just hope!
Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary: I love all of Beverly Cleary’s writing, and my second-eldest loved this one especially. She practically forced me to read it with her, she was so excited about it, and I am glad I did.
The Young Man and the Sea, by Rodman Philbrick. I ordered this one after seeing it recommended as ocean-related reading on a website. I am so glad I did. Although I had originally intended to put it on the reading list for the 3rd grader, I have since changed my mind and it will be one of our read-alouds so that we can all enjoy it together. I will be looking for more by the same author, too.
First Light, by Gary Crews. This is the only picture book of the set. At first it also seemed like the darkest to me. Maybe that is because of the full-page visuals of the boy’s dejection in the face of his father’s harshness (as opposed to text-based descriptions?). For whatever reason, it is a bit of a sad read at first. But a transformation occurs in the father and a certain gentleness shows through by the end of the book, after they both face danger together on the water and survive a risky fishing expedition.
Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli. This is such a fun read. I couldn’t put it down after I picked it up one afternoon, intending only to skim. I couldn’t even wait to read it all over again out loud to my son, and I won’t mind the next time I get to read it again, either. It is just an extra perk for me that it is set in Pennsylvania, where I was born, and it makes me hungry for hoagies. (And racial reconciliation!)
There is good writing and good story-telling and then there is a step further; in my opinion, these four really got there. Also appropriate for girls, despite my silly alliterative post title. Enjoy!